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25 of the best horror movies based on true stories

New Line Cinema

25 of the best horror movies based on true stories

The doll from “The Conjuring”

“Based on a true story” has been creatively interpreted when it comes to horror films. Director David Fincher, for example, investigated the titular serial killer of his 2007 film “Zodiac” so thoroughly that he and his team actually turned up new evidence. Others play more fast and loose with the phrase.

While “The Mothman Prophecies” remains somewhat faithful to recorded sightings of a humanoid being with moth wings and red eyes, it’s unlikely that such accounts will ever be verified. Some inspiration—like Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who decorated his home and wardrobe with pieces of women he killed or exhumed—could have been made into gripping cinema based on just the facts; instead, he inspired varied genre canons “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Psycho,” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Horror movies frighten us so effectively because they tap into the basic human fear of the unknown and play on classic themes around grief and loss. But for the items in this list, sometimes what’s known can be just as terrifying.

Stacker researched horror film history and spotlighted 25 horror movies with at least a 6.0 IMDb user rating that were based on a true story. The 25 were then ranked amongst themselves by IMDb user rating with ties broken by votes.

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Rogue Pictures

#25. ‘The Strangers’ (2008)

Liv Tyler and Kip Weeks in “The Strangers”

– Director: Bryan Bertino
– IMDb user rating: 6.1
– Metascore: 47
– Runtime: 86 minutes

In “The Strangers,” three masked individuals commit a senseless act of violence against a randomly selected couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) whose only crime was that they happened to be at home—the ultimate nightmare “what if” scenario spun out from one of Bertino’s childhood memories.

The director’s inspiration knocked decades earlier when he was home alone for the evening with his 7-year-old little sister. While babysitting, several people came to the door and asked for someone who didn’t live there. Bertino later found out that they were would-be home invaders stalking their neighborhood, looking for empty houses to break into.

Blood Relations Company

#24. ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (1977)

Susan Lanier and Dee Wallace in “The Hills have Eyes”

– Director: Wes Craven
– IMDb user rating: 6.3
– Metascore: 64
– Runtime: 90 minutes

The desert-dwelling cannibals terrorizing a family on a road trip to Los Angeles in Craven’s second effort are based on a centuries-old legend. Sawney Bean—a Scotsman who allegedly lived with his incestuous family in a seaside cave and devoured over 1,000 innocent travelers—may have actually been the brainchild of English authors during the Jacobite rebellion in the mid-1700s. The tale’s sheer outrageousness and historical inconsistencies suggest that Bean was a caricature drawn from the era’s anti-Scottish sentiment.

Universal Pictures

#23. ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1988)

Bill Pullman and Cathy Tyson in “The Serpent and the Rainbow”

– Director: Wes Craven
– IMDb user rating: 6.4
– Metascore: 64
– Runtime: 98 minutes

Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis wrote in his 1985 book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” that he had observed a Haitian man “zombified” by the poisonous chemical tetrodotoxin that naturally occurs in puffer fish. Although many in the scientific community discredited it, Wade’s claims provided fodder for Craven’s adaptation a few years later, which follows a Davis doppelganger’s terrifying journey into the land of voodoo.

Lakeshore Entertainment

#22. ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ (2002)

Richard Gere in a scene from “The Mothman Prophecies”

– Director: Mark Pellington
– IMDb user rating: 6.4
– Metascore: 52
– Runtime: 119 minutes

Pellington is the first to admit that “based on true events” is a generous interpretation of unverified 1960s-era eyewitness accounts of UFOs and other supernatural phenomena that inspired “The Mothman Prophecies.” Investigative journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) is based on author John Keel: In his 1975 book of the same name, Keel swore that he received premonitions for catastrophes—including the 1967 collapse of the Ohio River’s Silver Bridge and several assassinations—over the phone from a shadowy moth-human hybrid with red eyes that many West Virginians also professed to have seen.

End Cue

#21. ‘The Clovehitch Killer’ (2018)

Dylan McDermott, Madisen Beaty, and Charlie Plummer in “The Clovehitch Killer”

– Director: Duncan Skiles
– IMDb user rating: 6.5
– Metascore: 59
– Runtime: 109 minutes

Many true crime fans have noticed some specific similarities between the titular character (Dylan McDermott) and self-proclaimed BTK Killer (short for “bind, torture, kill”), born Dennis Rader; notably, both men acted out sexual bondage fantasies on their 10 victims while maintaining façades as pillars of the community, leading Boy Scout troops and assuming positions of authority in their neighborhood churches.

And yet, Skiles is reluctant to single out one person as the inspiration for “The Clovehitch Killer”—named for the type of rope knot found at his crime scenes—because he doesn’t want to give serial killers the attention he says they crave.

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Proton Cinema

#20. ‘Lords of Chaos’ (2018)

Rory Culkin in a scene from “Lords of Chaos”

– Director: Jonas Åkerlund
– IMDb user rating: 6.6
– Metascore: 48
– Runtime: 118 minutes

A former drummer for Swedish extreme metal outfit Bathory, Åkerlund adapted his vision of Norwegian black metal icons Mayhem from “Lords of Chaos,” a book written by neo-Nazi sympathizer Michael Moynihan.

The biopic stoked controversy even before its release: Mayhem’s co-founding member and bassist Necrobutcher told Rolling Stone that he would “do everything I can to stop this film.” It chronicles real-life deaths within the band—vocalist and lyricist Per Yngve “Pelle” Olin (stage name Dead; played by Jack Kilmer) died by suicide, and bassist Kristian “Varg” Vikernes (Emory Cohen) stabbed guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth (Rory Culkin) 23 times—and church burnings that swept Norway in the early ’90s.

Carver Films

#19. ‘The Snowtown Murders’ (2011)

Lucas Pittaway in a scene from “The Snowtown Murders”

– Director: Justin Kurzel
– IMDb user rating: 6.6
– Metascore: 66
– Runtime: 119 minutes

Kurzel’s directorial debut tracks nearly a dozen grisly deaths between 1992 and 1999 associated with Snowtown, a suburb north of Adelaide, Australia. Many of the characters are named after their flesh-and-blood analogs, and the official trailer emphasizes its connection to “the most notorious serial killings in the country’s history.”

“The Snowtown Murders” recreates events that led to the discovery by local police of eight bodies decomposing in acid-filled barrels that were hidden in an abandoned bank. John Bunting (Daniel Henshall, one of two working actors that Kurzel cast) recruits a sexually abused teenager, James “Jamie” Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), and others to help him massacre—and in some cases, torture and cannibalize—town residents he deemed “pedophiles” and “homosexuals.”

American Cinema Productions

#18. ‘The Entity’ (1982)

Barbara Hershey in a scene from “The Entity”

– Director: Sidney J. Furie
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 35
– Runtime: 125 minutes

California resident Doris Bither in 1974 admitted to parapsychologist Dr. Barry Taff that she had been assaulted sexually and physically in her home by something that no one could see. Taff concluded that paranormal activity was involved in Bither’s case (although he dismissed the idea of “spectral rape” and clarified that he believed the culprit to be a “poltergeist outbreak“); later researchers have attributed her invisible attacks to severe childhood trauma that was never resolved.

Regardless of whether or not these events happened exclusively inside Bither’s mind—or the extensively debated photographic evidence that demonstrates either ghostly apparitions or malfunctioning camera equipment—they became the material for Frank De Felitta’s 1978 occult novel “The Entity,” which Furie later reimagined for the big screen.

Screen Gems

#17. ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ (2005)

Jennifer Carpenter in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

– Director: Scott Derrickson
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 46
– Runtime: 119 minutes

Splicing scenes in a courtroom with scenes from a horror movie, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” takes place in the United States just over half a century after the young German woman who was the film’s source material, Anneliese Michel, died following 67 attempts to exorcize the demon many believed had taken possession of her.

Real and fictional juries found the priests who conducted the exorcisms responsible for the deaths of Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) and Michel, and both trials pitted science against religion to find an explanation for each victim’s disturbing behavior.

Twentieth Century Fox

#16. ‘From Hell’ (2001)

Johnny Depp and Heather Graham in “From Hell”

– Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 54
– Runtime: 122 minutes

The account of Jack the Ripper—a still-unknown assailant who butchered five sex workers in London in the 1880s and foreshadowed 20th-century serial killers—has been adapted many times over the past century, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927) to Bob Clark’s Sherlock Holmes-centering “Murder by Decree” (1979).

For their stab at a retelling of the well-known tale, the Hughes twins drew from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s 1998 graphic novel, “From Hell,” which pegged the so-called Whitechapel murders on British physician Dr. William Gull (Ian Holm). Where the written version starts with a prologue, however, the film begins with police detective Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) receiving premonitions in an opium-induced haze.

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ETIC Films

#15. ‘Ravenous’ (1999)

A scene from “Ravenous”

– Director: Antonia Bird
– IMDb user rating: 6.9
– Metascore: 46
– Runtime: 101 minutes

Cannibal Western “Ravenous” failed to recoup its $12 million budget upon release in 1999 but has since become something of a cult classic. A starving and frostbitten mystery man, Colonel Ives (Robert Carlyle), shows up at an army base in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the Mexican-American War, confessing that he was forced to eat his fellow travelers to survive the winter.

This premise evokes the infamous Donner Party: a group of migrants in 1846 who resorted to cannibalizing their deceased through the same mountain range. Ives’ fondness for human flesh brings to mind Alfred (or Alferd) G. Packer, a 19th-century prospector charged with eating his comrades and who allegedly called the “breasts of man … the sweetest meat I ever tasted.”

Saturn Films

#14. ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ (2000)

Willem Dafoe in a scene from “Shadow of the Vampire”

– Director: E. Elias Merhige
– IMDb user rating: 6.9
– Metascore: 71
– Runtime: 92 minutes

This film’s title is a bit of an oxymoron since according to monster lore, the undead blood-suckers don’t cast a shadow. This John Malkovich vehicle is a fictional behind-the-scenes look at 1922’s massively influential silent film “Nosferatu,” itself the copyright-infringing adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” released 25 years earlier.

Merhige’s historically referential film takes the longstanding rumor that “Nosferatu” star Max Schreck was an actual vampire and runs with it. Willem Dafoe plays a vampire masquerading as a method actor whose taste for blood is a little too realistic for the comfort of cast and crew.

Maljack Productions

#13. ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986)

Michael Rooker in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

– Director: John McNaughton
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 83 minutes

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is so unsettling that even McNaughton was “shaken by the discomfort [he] felt was present in the theater” when it was screened at the Telluride Film Festival. In the actual cases of Henry Lee Lucas and his accomplice, Ottis Toole, the facts can be difficult to separate from fiction: Lucas showed signs of being a pathological liar, and Toole twice recanted his confession of abducting and decapitating 6-year-old Adam Walsh.

McNaughton imagines an alternate universe in which each man’s kill count could realistically be in the hundreds—and Henry (Michael Rooker) simply drives off into the sunset after disposing of Otis (Tom Towles) and dismembering his girlfriend (Tracy Arnold).

Toho Company

#12. ‘Cold Fish’ (2010)

Megumi Kagurazaka in a scene from “Cold Fish”

– Director: Sion Sono
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 66
– Runtime: 146 minutes

Dog breeder Gen Sekine was renowned for introducing the Alaskan malamute to Japan before he, along with his former wife and an accomplice, achieved notoriety for poisoning four people over likely financial disagreements in 1993.

Although Sono told the Tokyo Reporter that he researched many Japanese criminal cases while developing “Cold Fish,” it’s not much of a stretch to find similarities between its exotic fish emporium and Sekine’s kennel, or between the store’s merciless owner (Denden) and the convicted serial killer with reputed links to the yakuza. Despite the gruesome subject matter, Sono said in the same interview that he chose to lighten “Cold Fish” with humor because “when you read crime files there are extreme situations whereby interviews with people can be very funny.”

Gerald Kargl

#11. ‘Angst’ (1983)

Erwin Leder and Silvia Ryder in “Angst”

– Director: Gerald Kargl
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 87 minutes

Kargl based his first feature-length outing on Werner Kniesek, an Austrian man who went on a rampage shortly before his 1980 release from prison where he was doing time for robbery and attempted homicide.

Driven by an apparent addiction to killing, both Kniesek and his on-screen representation, K. the Psychopath (Erwin Leder), dispatched a widow, her daughter, and her intellectually disabled son with methods including drowning, strangling, and stabbing. It wasn’t long before Kniesek, like K., was apprehended for acting suspiciously at a nearby eatery, and police discovered the deceased family in the trunk of the car that he stole from them.

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Media 8 Entertainment

#10. ‘Monster’ (2003)

Charlize Theron in a scene from “Monster”

– Director: Patty Jenkins
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 74
– Runtime: 109 minutes

Despite Charlize Theron’s Academy Award-winning transformation into Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Jenkins’ widely lauded interpretation of Wuornos’ crimes for the big screen has received criticism. Whether or not Wuornos acted in self-defense or cold blood is a controversial subject.

Several of her victims’ families disputed her portrayal in “Monster” as a sympathetic casualty of extreme childhood abuse and sex work, a profession in which women are not infrequently brutalized and killed. In response to these critiques, “Monster” producer Brad Wyman told ABC News that “based on a true story” should not be taken too literally in this case: “It’s not a documentary,” he said in 2004. “I mean in no way is it.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

#9. ‘Poltergeist’ (1982)

Oliver Robins in a scene from “Poltergeist”

– Director: Tobe Hooper
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 79
– Runtime: 114 minutes

The poltergeists of folklore are mischievous rather than malevolent beings. Not so the phantoms of “Poltergeist,” which invade a family’s new suburban home through a television portal, abduct their 5-year-old daughter (Heather O’Rourke), and terrorize her mother (JoBeth Williams) with unearthed corpses.

Hooper’s classic of cinema is based on the case of the Herrmanns from Seaford, New York, who in 1958 reported incidents that were so inexplicably strange—from bottles opening and knocking over by themselves to levitating sugar bowls—that they were featured in Life magazine and prompted an overwhelming amount of fan mail and telephone calls.


#8. ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974)

Marilyn Burns in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”

– Director: Tobe Hooper
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 78
– Runtime: 83 minutes

Prompted by television news coverage of the Vietnam War and serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley’s arrest in 1973, Hooper marketed “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as almost a documentary.

While power tool-wielding cannibal Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is made up, the figure who inspired him, Ed Gein—aka the Butcher of Plainfield—was real. Following his ultra-religious mother’s death, Gein ransacked graves for female body parts, which he fashioned into home decorations and items of clothing (he also admitted to killing a shopkeeper, whose mangled body was discovered in his home, as well as a tavern owner).

Dimension Films

#7. ‘Scream’ (1996)

Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, and Jamie Kennedy in “Scream”

– Director: Wes Craven
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 65
– Runtime: 111 minutes

Struggling screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote the script for “Scream,” originally titled “Scary Movie,” after watching an ABC News program on Danny Rolling, who later became known as the Gainesville Ripper.

In 1990, Rolling broke into the homes of five students in the Florida college town and stabbed them to death; additionally, he raped and mutilated the four female victims. Although Rolling acted alone, law enforcement at the time speculated that there might be two suspects working together—a fact that’s referenced in “Scream”: What appears to be one killer is actually two.

New Line Cinema

#6. ‘The Conjuring’ (2013)

Lili Taylor and Joey King in “The Conjuring”

– Director: James Wan
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 68
– Runtime: 112 minutes

“The Conjuring” was inspired by the alleged experiences of the Perron family in 1971 after they moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse and were reportedly bedeviled by spirits for the next nine years.

Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married team of paranormal investigators, supported the family’s allegations: In the film, the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) drive out Bathsheba Sherman—the ghost of a rumored witch in the 1800s and a prime suspect in the hauntings—but in reality, the Perrons eventually fled. The infamous dwelling sold in 2022 for $1.5 million; its previous owners had rented the space out to ghost hunters, demonologists, and anyone else seeking things that go bump in the night.

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Paramount Pictures

#5. ‘Zodiac’ (2007)

Dermot Mulroney, Adam Goldberg, and Mark Ruffalo in “Zodiac”

– Director: David Fincher
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: 78
– Runtime: 157 minutes

Fincher doesn’t dramatize the transgressions of the Zodiac, an unidentified California serial killer who claimed the lives of at least five people in the late 1960s and mailed encrypted letters to newspapers about his exploits.

“Zodiac” draws faithfully from research and evidence as well as two books penned by former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and true crime enthusiast Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). As such, “Zodiac” zigzags along a similar trajectory as the true unsolved mystery, only to wind up at the same dead end.

Warner Bros.

#4. ‘The Exorcist’ (1973)

Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”

– Director: William Friedkin
– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 122 minutes

In the real-life exorcism that laid the groundwork for “The Exorcist” novel and film, no one projectile-vomited on a priest or desecrated their genitalia with religious iconography. But the account of Roland Doe—whose real identity was revealed in 2018 as NASA engineer Ronald Hunkeler—tracks with Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) in other ways, including their beds shaking, words appearing etched into their skin, and speaking in distorted voices. In the end, MacNeil and Hunkeler were relieved of the demon that had purportedly inhabited their bodies.

Universal Pictures

#3. ‘Jaws’ (1975)

A scene from the water in the movie “Jaws”

– Director: Steven Spielberg
– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 124 minutes

You won’t find the name Frank Mundus, aka Monster Man, in the official credits for “Jaws”; even Peter Benchley—who wrote the 1974 novel that gave rise to the influential summer blockbuster about a man-eating great white shark—said his fictional shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw), was a “composite character.”

But those that personally knew the legendary Montauk, New York-based, shark-hunter-turned-conservationist swear that the two men shared many characteristics, like the way each attached hollow barrels to the harpoons they used to catch and kill sharks.

Shamley Productions

#2. ‘Psycho’ (1960)

Janet Leigh in “Psycho”

– Director: Alfred Hitchcock
– IMDb user rating: 8.5
– Metascore: 97
– Runtime: 109 minutes

To preserve the mystery surrounding “Psycho,” Hitchcock bought every single copy of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel “Psycho” (after acquiring the rights) so no one would know how the now-iconic film ended.

Indeed, both versions of “Psycho” follow essentially the same plot, in which deranged motel proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) lives with his mother’s preserved corpse and acts, dresses, speaks, and kills as though he is her. Like the killers of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” Norman is said to have been inspired by Ed Gein.

Orion Pictures

#1. ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”

– Director: Jonathan Demme
– IMDb user rating: 8.6
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 118 minutes

“The Silence of the Lambs” author Thomas Harris takes the tale of Ed Gein and turns the intensity up to 11. In his novel and Demme’s screen adaptation, there are two serial killers: Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).

The latter skins his victims and aims to stitch together a suit from female epidermises, similar to Gein, whose wardrobe contained a shirt bearing a dead woman’s breasts and a belt adorned with nipples. Unlike Gein’s case—which a seasoned male sheriff cracked open—Buffalo Bill is brought down by a woman (Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster), who also happens to be an FBI agent-in-training.

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